As the sun sets on the grand 19th-century hall of Keleti station in Budapest, Amira gets ready to spend another night on the street. She is one of roughly 2,000 people sleeping rough outside the station.
Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and people from many other nations are seeking refuge in Europe. Amira, who fled from Qamishli in northern Syria, has been in Hungary for 11 days. Like many others, her ultimate goal is Germany. She sleeps on a piece of cardboard, with a pack of nappies as a pillow. Her son Fawaz, four months old, coughs.
Like many here, she tried to board the train to Austria this week. It was the first train in days to take on refugees. She says she is happy she did not manage to push through the crowd. That train did not travel to Austria, but to a registration centre in Bicske, a town 45 minutes away. Almost 500 of its tired but determined passengers refused to leave the train until last night, when a stand-off with riot police ended peacefully. “A Hungarian woman warned it would take us to camps, and not to Germany,” Amira explains. Hundreds of other migrants broke out from one such camp in Roszke.
The refugees and migrants in Keleti station have also been defying police, refusing to leave the station and insisting that they can keep going west. International trains remain suspended for “safety reasons”, the departure board says. Police direct lost tourists to local trains but bar the refugees from the platform area.
Frustrated by the lack of action, hundreds of migrants set off for Austria on foot, aiming to reach Germany. Amira’s time in Hungary has shaken her belief in Europeans. “We don’t trust them: they will take us to the camps and beat us,” she says. “I hope that when the train comes it will take us away from here; that is all that I want.”
Amira crossed four borders to get to Budapest during a harrowing journey that is becoming a rite of passage for thousands seeking a better life in Europe.
Some 200,000 people have crossed the sea between Turkey and Greece, paying hundreds of pounds to smugglers for a space on overcrowded dinghies. “It’s the worst thing I have ever done in my life,” says Mountaha, 23, who fled from Idlib in Syria. She and her husband, Anas, 24, a computer engineer, initially fled to Turkey. But after six months there they decided they wanted a better future for their son Mohamed, who is two months old.
They paid €5,000 to a smuggler, having sold their car and gold in Syria to finance the trip. There were 60 people packed into a boat meant for half that number. “You can’t imagine: women screaming, children crying...” she says as her voice trails off.
Having reached Europe, they took a bus on 30 July from Thessaloniki to the tiny town of Idomeni, the last Greek town before the border with Macedonia. Mountaha wore trainers, ready for the walk over the train tracks to cross the border. The railway to Belgrade has turned into a flashpoint for unofficial border crossings. Every day roughly 2,000 people cross it into Macedonia from Idomeni.
Greek police help people make the illegal crossing, sorting them into groups of 50 before allowing them to cross. Every 30 minutes or so a train rattles by and people scurry from the tracks. There are refugees everywhere, trying to find some shade from the blazing sun underneath the trees or a parked train carriage. Once in Macedonia, £8 buys a ticket from Gevgelija to the last train station before the Serbian border.
On the train, the diversity of the refugees becomes clear. There is Naomie, 17, immaculately made up with black eyeliner, mascara and pink lipstick and smiling from under the wide rim of her hat. “I’m going to Hamburg – we have family there. I dream of becoming a doctor,” she says.
She is travelling with her cousin Hanin; both are from Aleppo. They used to live a comfortable life. Hanin left behind her house with a swimming pool and large garden, and her dog. Her husband has stayed behind. “I’m embarrassed to travel this way,” she says gesturing around at the carriage, where children and men have stretched out in the aisles to sleep.
Outside this train, they take taxis and sleep in hotels; like many Syrian refugees they belong to the middle class. On the other of the spectrum is Imad, a low-level government employee from Douma, a suburb of Damascus. He has spent almost all his money on the trip across the sea and is now relying on charity. “I only have €300 left for the rest of the journey,” he says. “I’m counting on people being generous.” And they are. He holds up a sandwich someone gave him in Macedonia.
He, too, is heading for Germany but he has no idea where. “Do you think my three daughters can join me there?” he asks. Once they reach the border, there is no time to waste. Those streaming out of the train are joined by more people getting off buses. The lines of migrants stretch out into the fields as far as the eye can see, past the border into Serbia.
The vast majority of those on the Balkan route are Syrians. Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghans make up the next biggest groups. Those speaking perfect English have given up on the idea of going to Britain – it is too difficult. “We are heading to Belgium,” say some teachers in their late twenties before hurrying off across the border. In Serbia, all migrants and refugees must register. But the registration centre in Presovo, a town two miles from the last Macedonian train station, is overwhelmed by the thousands trying to do so. They wait outside the gates of the converted tobacco factory. Tents are pitched alongside the road.
Those who make it past the police barrier are searched, registered, fingerprinted and photographed. They then receive a 72-hour pass, in Serbian, with the name of an asylum centre, which nobody will go to. More important, the document allows them to use public transport and book into hotels. Bus companies employ fixers speaking Arabic to hustle for business. Paper in hand, people move on to Belgrade.
Yann, a pharmacist from Kobane in Syria is travelling with a group of young men from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Belgrade is a stopover where people plan how to tackle the next border and the entry point of the borderless Schengen zone: Hungary.
The Macedonian and Serbian borders are easily crossed, but Hungary is trying to stop refugees entering. A barbed wire fence was recently completed. “Everything, every hour, everything changes,” Yann says. Smugglers hand out pieces of paper with phone numbers – €500 gets you to Hungary, €1,500 to Germany. “I can’t afford it,” Yann sighs. Buses take those looking to cross into Hungary up to Horgos, on the Serbian-Hungarian border. From there, they will continue on foot. A trail of trash and beaten down bushes shows what used to be a popular route, through the forest between two rivers. Now three spools of razor wire stretch out along the trees. Border police patrol, using search lights at night.
But people still get through. Mohammed, 17, from Damascus managed to wiggle through after his companions cut the wire. But he was stopped by Hungarian police and spent five days in a registration camp. “It was disgusting and we only got one litre of water a day,” he says. Like many waiting at Keleti station he has been registered as EU law requires. “I want to go to Germany. Why won’t they let us leave?”
Fernande van Tets has been reporting along the Balkan route for France 24Reuse content